The Libertarian Moment

Despite all leading indicators to the contrary, America is poised to enter a new age of freedom.


If someone looked you in the eye in 1971 and said "Man, you know what? We're about to get a whole lot freer," you might have reasonably concluded that he was nuts, driven mad by taking too much LSD and staring into the sun.

Back during that annus horribilis, a Republican president from the Southwest, facing an economy that was groaning under the strain of record deficits and runaway spending on elective and unpopular overseas wars, announced one of the most draconian economic interventions in Washington's inglorious history: a freeze on wages and prices, accompanied by an across-the-board 10 percent tariff on imports and the final termination of what little remained of the gold standard in America.

Though the world wouldn't learn until later that this president was using federal law enforcement agencies to attack his real and imagined enemies, Richard Nixon's yen for paranoid secrecy and executive branch power-mongering was well-established, providing an actuarial foreshadowing of corruption. Which isn't to say that the Democrats of the time were any less statist: In 1972, their presidential nominee was even more economically interventionist than Tricky Dick. Widely (and rightly) considered the most liberal Oval Office candidate in decades, George McGovern actually claimed that wage and price controls were applied "too late—they froze wages but let prices and profits run wild." And individual states were passing income taxes like so many doobies at a beachside singalong.

Yet even during that dark night of the American soul, with all its eerie echoes of George W. Bush's final miserable days in office, premonitions of liberty-loving life abounded for those who knew where to look. The contraceptive pill, which gave women unprecedented control over their sexual and reproductive lives, had been made legal for married women in 1965, and was on the verge of being legalized for unmarried women too. A new political group, the Libertarian Party, started in December 1971, and a larger libertarian movement manifested itself in a host of young organizations and publications. Free agency in sports, music, and film, triggered by a series of legal battles and economic developments, ushered in a wild new era of individualistic expression and artistic independence. It was an unfree world but, as bestselling author (and eventual Libertarian presidential candidate) Harry Browne could attest, it was one in which you could still find plenty of freedom.

Widespread middle-class prosperity gave the average American the tools and the confidence to experiment with a thousand different lifestyles, many of them previously the sole dominion of the rich, giving us everything from gay liberation to encounter groups, from back-to-the-garden communes to back-to-the-old-ways fundamentalist churches, from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to Looking Out for #1. In 1968, the techno-hippies at the Whole Earth Catalog announced, "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." A year later, a new technology allowing university computers to communicate with one another went live, laying the foundations for what would become the Internet. And the magazine you are holding, in its September 1969 issue, made what might have been the craziest argument of all during the Age of Nixon: If you abolish the Civil Aeronautics Board and get the federal government out of regulating "every essential aspect" of the airline business, Robert W. Poole wrote, then air traffic will grow while prices plummet. (For more on Poole's story, see "40 Years of Free Minds and Free Markets," page 28.)

By the end of the 1970s, the Civil Aeronautics Board was in the dustbin of history, sharing much-deserved space with price controls, the reserve clause, and back-alley abortions. What started out as a decade marred by pointless war and Soviet-style central planning ended up being the decade that ended military conscription and—arguably even more stunning—regulation of interstate trucking. The personal computer introduced possibilities few people had ever dreamed of (though reason did; see "Speculation, Innovation, Regulation," page 44), a property tax revolt in California spread like a brush fire across the country, and the Republican Party went from the big-government conservatism of Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller to the small-government rabble-rousing of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The Libertarian Party…well, it kept trying, winning one electoral vote in 1972 and 921,299 popular votes in 1980.

Most importantly, individuals burned through the 1970s with the haughty grandeur and splashiness falsely predicted of Comet Kohoutek. Stagflation be damned: Americans finally learned to live, dammit, in a no-collar world where both electricians and executives dressed like peacocks and women starting earning real money, not just as entertainers but as doctors and lawyers. Boys grew hair longer than girls, and girls started playing Little League baseball. As Tom Wolfe wrote in his era-naming 1976 essay, "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening," "But once the dreary little bastards started getting money…they did an astonishing thing—they took their money and ran! They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me! They've created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken!"

Everything solid dissolved into the Bermuda Triangle, or at least a long series of Chariots of the Gods sequels. During the 1970s, we undoubtedly felt more discombobulated (Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth and Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull shared the bestseller lists), but there is no question in retrospect that we were considerably more free even by the time Thatcher padlocked the coal mines in Olde England and the Reagan Revolution ushered in the 1980s as a glorious decade of greed.

That '00s Show

As in 1971, there is no shortage of reasons to grumble about the state of American liberty at the end of 2008. As this issue went to press, Congress had passed the economic equivalent of the PATRIOT Act, a nearly trillion-dollar bailout of the financial industry, involving whole-scale nationalization of the mortgage lending business (see "Back to the Barricades," page 2, and "Atlas Blinked," page 18). Despite (or perhaps because of ) eight years of a president who has increased regulatory spending by more than 61 percent in real terms, "deregulation" has become a concept even more panic-inducing than Janet Jackson's nipple. Whether in international security, the financial world, or the cultural arena, the answer to everything seems to be a new clampdown. It is nearly impossible to cross a North American border without showing a passport, revealing biomedical information, and being entered into a database for decades. Every day across this great country some city council is finding a new private activity to ban, whether it's selling food cooked with trans fats, using a cell phone behind the wheel, or smoking a cigarette outdoors. And the two major-party candidates for president are trying to out-populist one another with Oliver Stone–level attacks on Wall Street "greed," while advancing economic plans filled with centralized industrial policy and extravagant promises that would undoubtedly burst the federal government's already near-broken budget.

Yet if 1971 contained a few flickers of light in the authoritarian darkness, 2008 is chock full of halogen-bright beacons shouting "This way!" Turn away from the overhyped prize of the Oval Office and all the dreary, government expanding policies and politics that go with it, and the picture is not merely one of plausible happy endings to our current sob stories of mortgage-finance meltdowns and ever-lengthening war, but something far more radical, more game-changing, than all that we've grown to expect.

We are in fact living at the cusp of what should be called the Libertarian Moment, the dawning not of some fabled, clichéd, and loosey-goosey Age of Aquarius but a time of increasingly hyper-individualized, hyper-expanded choice over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life-saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services. This is now a world where it's more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms; it's an early rough draft version of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick's glimmering "utopia of utopias." Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky. If you don't believe it, ask your gay friends, or simply look who's running for the White House in 2008.

This new century of the individual, which makes the Me Decade look positively communitarian in comparison, will have far-reaching implications wherever individuals swarm together in commerce, culture, or politics. Already we have witnessed gale-force effects on nearly every "legacy" industry that had grown accustomed to dictating prices and product and intelligence to their customers, be they airlines, automakers, music companies, or newspapers (it was nice knowing all of you). Education and health care, handicapped by their large streams of public-sector and hence revanchist funding, lag behind, but even in those sorry professions, practitioners are scrambling desperately to respond to consumer demands and compete for business. Politics, always a crippled, lagging indicator of social change, will be the last entrenched oligopoly to be squashed like a bug on the windshield of history, since the two major parties have effectively rigged the game to their advantage in a way no robber baron ever could. But the Dems and Reps, more bankrupt as brands than Woolworth's and Sears Roebuck, are already in ideological Chapter 11.

The Libertarian Moment is based on a few hard-won insights that have grown into a fragile but enduring consensus in the ever-expanding free world. First is the notion that, all things being equal, markets are the best way to organize an economy and unleash the means of production (and its increasingly difficult-to-distinguish adjunct, consumption). Second is that at least vaguely representative democracy, and the political freedom it almost always strengthens, is the least worst form of government (a fact that even recalcitrant, anti-modern regimes in Islamabad, Tehran, and Berkeley grudgingly acknowledge in at least symbolic displays of pluralism). Both points seem almost banal now, but were under constant attack during the days of the Soviet Union, and are still subject to wobbly confidence any time capitalist dictatorships like China seem to grow ascendant in a time of domestic economic woe. Though every dip in the Dow makes the professional amnesiacs of cable TV and the finance pages turn in the direction of Mao, there is no going back to the Great Leap Forward.

Or the Great Society, for that matter. Try as politicians might, citizens continue their great escape from grand designs. Financially ruinous entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are going nowhere slow, but all of us are getting better at finding ways to work around such stultifying bureaucracies. Virtually across the board, the government's pension plan is becoming less important to retirees and the medical cartel is slowly losing its death grip on providing basic services. Even across old Europe, government spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen over the past several decades. The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom has charted nothing but global increases since it began in 1995.

The ne plus ultra change agent as we lurch through the finish line of yet another electoral contest between our 19th century political parties is the revolutionary, break-it-down-and-build-it-back-up power of the Internet, and all the glorious creative destruction it enables at the expense of lumbering gatekeepers and to the benefit of empowered individuals. No single entity in the history of mankind has been so implicitly and explicitly libertarian: a tax-free distributed network and alternative universe where individuals, usually without effective interference from government, can reshape their identities, transcend limitations of family, geography, and culture. It's a place where freaks and geeks and regular folks can pool their intelligence and compete (even win!) against entities thousands of times their size.

The generation raised on the Internet has essentially been raised libertarian, even if they've never even heard of the word. Native netizens now entering college exhibit a kind of broad-based tolerance toward every manner of ethnic, religious, and sexual-orientation grouping in a way that would have seemed like science fiction just a generation ago. The products and activities they enjoy and co-opt most, from filesharing to flying discount airlines to facebooking, are excrescences of the free-market ideas of deregulation and decontrol. Generations X, Y, and those even younger swim in markets—that is, in choices among competing alternatives—the way those of us who grew up in the '70s frolicked on Slip 'n Slides.

Feelin' Groovy

Understanding the Libertarian Moment is fundamental to understanding the 21st century. Power—economic, cultural, political—will accrue to those people who recognize that it's over for existing power centers. The command economy, the command culture, and the command polity have all been replaced by a different model—that of a consultant, a docent, a fixer, a friend. The individuals and groups that will flourish in the Libertarian Moment will be those who open things up, not shut them down.

The first step toward understanding is to recognize that the moment is indeed upon us. In reason's 20th anniversary issue, the most talked-about piece was Robert Poole's then-controversial contention that 1988 was a lot "groovier" than 1968. (For Poole's take on the freedoms to emerge since then, see "Groovier and Groovier," page 14; also, consult Veronique de Rugy's "Are You Better off Than You Were 40 Years Ago?," page 24.) The single biggest piece of good news in the past 20 years (and arguably the past 90) was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the final discrediting of Marxism as an economic and social model. Communism had ironically sided with the producer rather than the consumer, the factory owner rather than the workingman, by trying without success to shove unwanted commodities on unmanageable customers.

If the end of World War II hastened the end of old-style colonialism (by the mid-1960s, virtually all the conventional Old World empires had been thoroughly dismantled), the end of the Cold War marked the end of countless proxy wars between the two major superpowers. The erosion of top-down hegemony resulted not in chaos (as many feared) but a new era of freedom and mostly peaceful coexistence. As of the end of 2007, Freedom House ranked 90 of 193 countries as "free," 60 as "partly free," and 43 as "not free," which is up from 81/57/53 in 1997, and 58/51/51 in 1987.

Not only are countries increasingly independent and free, but thanks to global trade they are increasingly prosperous as well, with an estimated 600 million people lifted out of poverty in China alone over the past three decades. War is declining, too: As the political scientist John Mueller documents in 2004's The Remnants of War, armed global conflicts in which 1,000 people have died yearly have been in decline for decades.

Global freedom and prosperity may be the greatest single cause for rejoicing, but the Libertarian Moment affects our humdrum daily lives here in America as well. As Madge always told us about Palmolive, we're soaking in it.

The Internet alone has created entire new economies, modes of scattered and decentralized organization and work, and a hyper-individualization that would have shocked the Founding Fathers. Liberated from the constraints of geography and 20th century career paths, Americans are more productive than they ever have been and their jobs are more personalized than ever, with strictly enforced punch-the-clock jobs morphing into flextime, telecommuting gigs. In less than two decades, we've moved from a "You want fries with that?" world to one in which "You want soy with that decaf mocha frappuccino?" no longer elicits laughs—except unintentionally, when John McCain tries to use Starbucks flavors as a stand-in for Americans' lack of seriousness.

Critics continue to worry about the demise of what John Kenneth Galbraith and others described in the 1950s and '60s as The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, in which too-big-to-fail megacorporations such as IBM and General Motors replaced the welfare state as a cradle-to-grave provider of social welfare services, status, and meaning. But fears of "a great risk shift" in which post-industrial free agents are left to fend for themselves is based on what the management guru Tom Peters once called, in a reason interview, the "'false-nostalgia-for-shitty-jobs phenomenon': Oh for the halcyon days when I could sit on the 37th floor of the General Motors Tower passing memorandums from the left side of the desk to the right side of the desk for 43 years. It's just total shit. It really is. Life was not as glorious as imagined."

The era of the blockbuster and the bestseller has been replaced with something new and wonderful: a world in which individuals are free to express themselves by tapping into millions of different book titles at Amazon, tens of thousands of different songs at Rhapsody, and dozens of different beers at even the least-provisioned supermarket (at least those that aren't banned outright from selling alcohol). Smart retailers realize that the key to the future is to give the customer more choices, not to act as a chokepoint. In a similar way, social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook do not structure interaction as much as provide a not-so-temporary autonomous zone to facilitate it. Individual users tailor the experience to their own desires rather than submit to a central authority. The inhabitants of such a world are instinctively soft libertarians, resisting or flouting most nanny-state interference, at least on issues that affect their favorite activities. When it comes to online commerce, at least, both producers and consumers scream bloody murder every time 20th century politicians attempt to levy taxes or restrictions on goods and services.

This wave of individualized creative destruction is battering incumbents in seemingly every industry except politics, where the status quo parties keep partying like it's 1899. But look closer, and you'll see they're hemorrhaging market share just like broadcast dinosaurs on network TV. In 1970, the Harris Poll asked Americans, "Regardless of how you may vote, what do you usually consider yourself—a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or some other party?" Fully 49 percent of respondents chose Democrat, and 31 percent called themselves Republicans. In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, those figures were 35 percent for Democrats and 26 percent for Republicans. The only real growth market in politics is voters who decline political affiliation, and the only political adjective seemingly gaining in popularity is…libertarian.

From lefty comedian Bill Maher to righty columnist Jonah Goldberg, from in-the-tank Democratic blogger Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas to in-the-tank Republican talk show host Neal Boortz, you can't turn around in a political discussion anymore without hearing someone identify themselves at least partially (whether rightly or wrongly) as a "libertarian."

The 2008 presidential campaign, and to a heartening degree the public debate and all-too-temporary congressional defeat of the Wall Street bailout, gave the first hints at what may soon become a permanent libertarian strain in politics. An uncharismatic libertarian congressman from Texas, Ron Paul, ignited a decentralized swarm of money-bombing donors to the Republican presidential primaries with his message of not wanting to run people's lives ("we all have different values"), or the economy ("people run the economy in a free society"), or the world ("we don't need to be imposing ourselves around the world").

Though the Paul movement didn't end up coalescing behind a single candidate for president after the primaries were over, its impact could still be felt in the fall, when, faced with a historic opportunity to socialize losses by throwing tax money at investment banks, Main Street Americans shrugged at least temporarily while Wall Street Atlases wept. As the chattering classes, politicians, and analysts compared a run of recent bankruptcies and market downturns to an economic Pearl Harbor requiring an immediate call to arms, more than half of the House of Representatives said that prudence dictated taking a deep breath or three.

On the stump, Barack Obama preaches a less-interventionist foreign policy and an interventionist domestic agenda; John McCain presents roughly the obverse. Despite each of them claiming to foment change, their adherence to old forms and old labels represents not the first real choice in the new era but the last presidential contest of the 20th century. Yet between them, and outside of their spheres, is a glimmering of a fusion that just might appeal to most Americans: engagement and integration with the world via cultural and economic exchange, and a more personally autonomous society at home in which individuals are responsible for charting their own course.

It's wrong to look at politics as anything other than the B.A. Baracus of American society, the last one through the door and the last member of The A-Team to get the joke. And a simple study of incentives will tell you that political parties will use whatever is at their disposal to stay in power, particularly the government they control. Expecting Washington to cut back its main instrument of power after a capitalism-bashing political campaign is like expecting Michael Moore to share his Egg McMuffin with a homeless man.

But when the gap grows too wide between voter desire and government policy, between the way people actually live their lives and the way government wants them to behave, then a situation that looks stable can turn revolutionary overnight. Richard Nixon may have been sitting pretty in 1971, but he was sent packing to San Clemente by 1974. As back then, we emerge from life under George W. Bush bruised and battered but looking forward not to a protracted twilight struggle with an existential foe but to a new and largely unimaginable world of wonders. There is a learning curve at work here, one that human beings have been struggling with for 40 years, 400 years, 4,000 years. In context, it has only been recently that the concept of individual liberty has been prototyped and subjected to testing in anything approaching real-world conditions. Advances are inevitably followed by setbacks, and we stagger into the future punch-drunk, more like Muhammad Ali than Rocky Marciano.

But the power to swarm in the direction of freedom is the new technology fueling an idea that is as old as the American republic itself: No central government shall interfere with our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The Libertarian Moment is taking these self-evident truths and organizing them into a comprehensive approach toward living. It started where it always does, in business and culture, where innovation is rewarded. Statist politicians—it's not fully clear that there is any other kind—will ignore that epochal shift at their peril. And will eventually be forced to fly to their own personal San Clementes.

Nick Gillespie is editor of reason online and reason.tv. Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason.